The dichotomy between believers and non-believers of the Book of Mormon (BoM) was simple for many years following its introduction into the sectarian religious scene. Believers believed it was a literal record of ancient American tribes delivered through Joseph Smith by God. This literal belief is what Marcus Borg would call natural literalism;* belief with little reason not to believe. Non-believers confidently asserted it was the product of a con-man, or perhaps several. It possessed no value whatsoever.
Two reflections can be made based on the above paragraph. First, the early BoM saga represents a microcosm of the intense debate of the early 19th century between skeptics (often Deists) and evangelicals/mystics. Second, the natural literalism which pervaded the early church is similar to that of Christians with regards to the Bible during the Dark Ages and much of Medieval Times.
While, admittedly, my knowledge of Community of Christ history in and of itself is limited, I think it is fair to assert that its reaction to scientific and empirical thought in the 20th century is reminiscent of the Deist reaction in the 17th and 18th centuries. For many, conscious literalism (or fundamentalism) became and has become untenable, even outside of the Community of Christ tradition. On the other hand, many Latter Day Saint traditions continue to assert such literalism. They ask a poignant question of so-called “liberal” members: Is Latter Day liberalism, like Deism, a halfway house on the road to rejection of the BoM?
First, conscious literalism is not evil, or necessarily wrong, at its core. Such beliefs can provide a rewarding life and fulfillment. I know, for many years, I was both a natural and conscious literalist. Like others who have become much more liberal, I have had to ponder the question posed above. The answer is no, it does not have to be. Additionally, the question assumes it is the BoM which makes the religion. For the rest of this post, I will recount how I have come to understand faith in general, and the BoM’s relationship to faith in the Latter Day tradition.
Faith, for me, is not in an object. Using a Buddhist proverb: I don’t believe in the finger, I look to where the finger points. In addition, the words of Paul Tillich summarize another element of faith:
“Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolic name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith.”
Continuing a line of Tillich-ian thought, I do not ground my faith in that which is finite, as God, for me, is an infinite reality. However, I can use language and images of God to relate to that which I believe serves as the basis of being.
The finger of the Latter Day tradition, the BoM, can still play an integral role. Just as it can be viewed as a human response to God, time, and man in its own era, we can respond to it as well. By this I mean we can find where it is applicable to our lives, not necessarily as God’s direct word, but as relevant to the divine.
*See Reading the Bible Again for the First Time; I include several references to it throughout this post.